Battling fires in front of a crowd of onlookers, Hall County Fire Department trainees looked ready for the real deal as they extinguished controlled car fires, structure fires and a propane blaze that shot 30 feet into the sky above the Allen Creek training facilities.
The hires were funded to meet the staffing needs of a department set to operate a 16th station and ladder truck by April. In March, 16 more newly hired firefighters start training, available positions in the department will be filled, officials are happy to say.
“That will fill it up,” Hall County Fire Chief and Emergency Services Director David Kimbrell said. “We still have some frozen positions that are frozen as a cost savings. We hope to thaw those at the next budget.”
Training classes have been necessitated by both the department’s growth and higher-than-desirable turnover. Stations suffered the strain of operating at times about 10 percent below baseline staffing.
Weary of the cycle of training recruits only to lose them to departments offering better salaries, Kimbrell said he hopes that retention will prove less of a problem than years past as the county budget recovers.
“It’s hard to guess, but we’re still trying,” he said. “People leave for a little bit more money.”
The elimination of remaining furlough days was a huge step toward retaining employees, county officials say.
Last year, the Hall County Board of Commissioners eliminated the last two furlough days. Two years ago, commissioners built in 12 furlough days to save money.
Kimbrell said a 2013 bonus for county employees was a morale booster.
“It helped a lot,” he said.
As department heads hope their hires stick around, the command staff has been revitalized with a fresh face: Deputy Chief John Hood.
“That position was frozen for awhile,” Kimbrell said. “It was actually thawed out this budget year.”
Hood will be the first to assume the deputy chief title, though it was a new position approved eight years ago.
Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs said loosening up funds frozen at the height of frugality is done with caution but consideration for the department’s needs.
“We’ve tried to be very conservative on adding those positions back, but I think the chief has to have some help,” Gibbs said. “It was just overwhelming.”
“They’ve all done a tremendous job.”
Kimbrell said a deputy chief position fits with the department’s model.
“Just looking at all the different scenarios and different models, we felt that one would be appropriate for what we did,” he said. “He’s like the No. 2 person. If I’m busy, he’s the next person to go to. If we have a lot of projects going on, I’ll do some, he’ll do some.”
Hood retired in Hall County in 2012 after a 35-year career in firefighting, ending as chief of the Clayton County Fire Department.
“I’ve served in pretty much position in the fire service, including the chief,” Hood said. “I was also a deputy chief before. I know what having a good deputy chief means to the chief.”
And the command staff changes don’t end there: Capts. Skip Heflin, who heads training, and Scott Cagle, fire marshal, have been promoted to chiefs.
“We restructured a little bit,” Kimbrell said. “It was kind of moving some folks around and reorganizing some positions.”
Hood said that the changes further streamline an effective structure.
“I guess you could describe it as paramilitary organization,” he said. “It is very streamlined. It’s very effective in my opinion.”
Hood said as he gets to know the department, his role will help identify ways to make the department more effective, which he’ll furnish to Kimbrell.
“You have to know where you’re at to know where you’re going to go,” he said. “I’ve begun that process and we will continue that and see what the needs are, and I will make those recommendations to the chief.”
The department newcomer said he likes what he sees so far.
“I want to say that thus far, all the personnel I’ve interacted with have been very professional, very effective and skillfully sound,” Hood said.